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This article is taken from PN Review 11, Volume 6 Number 3, January - February 1980.

Pontifices James A. Powell

CRITICISM must balance on the knife-blade of theory. Even an ad hoc, "practical" criticism's clearest case, comparative judgement of two works, necessarily refers to a theoretical third: the "poem itself" cannot assure us simply that it is "a poem" without reference to the poetic community that subsumes it. And yet the history of criticism, so largely a tale of partial vision mated with partial blindness, appears to urge that the blade be dull. Judgement errs most wildly (if sometimes most interestingly) when fulcrate on a theory too rigorously defined, too strenuously applied. On the other hand, one rather hopes for great ardor in comment on contemporary work, if only for the provocation: it may date quickly, but its desiderations will stimulate immediate practice the more incisively. Quite possibly taking the monitory example of Yvor Winters' critical zealotry to heart, Robert Pinsky eschews theoretical vehemence in The Situation of Poetry, almost vehemently. Not that he invokes the sort of eclecticism Thomas Mann called "merely an excuse for loose tastes"; rather, he prefers to allow his criterion to arise, as a kind of aurea mediocritas, defined by the stylistically quite heterogeneous works he poses around it. Yet if "inclusiveness" and equanimity prove among his criticism's greatest virtues-still more his poetry's-perhaps the best measure of the interest his theoretical arguments arouse is the intensity with which one wishes he had explored them at greater length, formulated them more rigorously.

In his extraordinarily impressive central chapter, Pinsky alloys his volume's theoretical ...


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